x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Ennahda's next steps crucial for Tunisia's stability

Ennahda must take actions to stop the violence in the country, to save the Arab Spring's model of stability.

The dissolution of the government might not seem like the best way to assure stability following a political assassination. After the prominent opposition leader Chokri Belaid was killed outside his home on Wednesday, Tunisia needs to track down his killers and prevent a worsening spiral of violence. The present government, however, may not be the best one to staunch the bleeding.

At least one policeman has been killed in protests, which have targeted Ennahda offices. Mr Belaid's family has also been quick to accuse Ennahda for failing to rein in other Islamist groups - on the day before his murder, Mr Belaid had warned that the moderate Islamist party had given tacit approval for political assassinations.

At least some of Ennahda's leadership seems to recognise the harm that Mr Belaid's murder could do to the party. Prime Minister Hamadi Jbeli announced on the same day of the murder that he would dissolve the cabinet and replace the ministers with technocrats to govern the country until summer elections. But other leaders in Ennahda yesterday rejected that proposal, saying that Mr Jbeli had failed to consult with the party, leaving the government in a state of confusion.

Protests are continuing, with trade unions threatening nationwide strikes today. Mr Belaid's supporters - and what seems to be a broad base of ordinary Tunisians outraged at this stark turn for the worse - have already concluded that Ennahda is to blame. The investigation to identify the killers, and their political backers, will face an uphill road against the weight of that public opinion.

Ennahda may feel the results in the next elections. The party's reputation is in the balance whether it is implicated or not. Tunisia may have been spared the extreme violence that has plagued other Arab-uprising countries, but Mr Jbeli's government has been weak reining in militant Islamist groups, until violence has spilt into the streets at least.

But blaming Ennahda as a whole is misleading. Mr Belaid accused the party of complicity in recent attacks - in particular, the "Committees to Protect the Revolution" have been accused of fomenting street violence - but these groups are hardly under the control of the central leadership.

Ennahda must disavow the violence, as many of its leaders have already done, but stopping violent militant groups is the job of an impartial government and the security services.

Tunisia is often called the bellwether of the Arab uprisings and, until now, a relatively bright spot amid the instability. Unlike Egypt, it has approached the new constitution gradually and emphasised consensus. If that process were to break down, Tunisia could be a different model, one in which assassinations became the order of the day.